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Report: Black military members twice as likely as whites to face court-martial

Lawmakers say racial disparity in military justice must be fixed.

WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office says minority service members receive far harsher punishments than their white colleagues.

According to the GAO, in all the military services, black and Hispanic troops were more likely than whites to be tried in a court-martial proceeding.

The GAO's 33-page report finds that black service members were about twice as likely as white service members to be tried in general and special courts-martial.

"Like our country, our military has a long and painful history of mistreating minorities," said retired Colonel Don Christensen, president of the advocacy group Protecting Our Defenders. "Black service members have continued to be prosecuted and punished at a much greater rate than white counterparts."

Christensen said the problem goes back a long way.

"We examined a total of 32 years of data," he said. "And in every single year, black service members were punished at a significantly higher rate than white service members."

That disparity was highest in the Air Force, where black airmen were 71 percent more likely to face court-martial or non-judicial punishment than white airmen in an average year, when Protect Our Defenders assessed Air Force data from 2006 to 2015. The group later obtained internal Air Force documents from 2016 which acknowledged racial disparities were "consistent, persistent, and getting worse," according to Christensen. 

Brenda Farrell, director of the Defense Capabilities and Management Team at GAO, similarly called for DOD to assess the underlying causes of the disparities and said congressional oversight of the department's progress in addressing these issues would be necessary. 

"Further, black service members were more likely than white service members to be tried in general and special court-martials in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force," she said.

The issue of racial injustice within the military was the subject of Tuesday's hearing before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. Lawmakers said the problem must be fixed.

"People of color who wish to make a career of the military have faced an uphill fight and we've done too little to assist them," said Rep Jackie Speier (D-California). "Seventy-two years after integration, the fight for equality and justice continues."

Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi) added: "If racial disparity persists, it always will have a negative impact on recruiting, readiness, and the culture of the military. Leaders need to do the right thing always. Treat every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with dignity and respect and protect that trust that bids warriors together."

The GAO made 11 recommendations.

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